Osler Women Play Leading Roles in Big Law

Lauren Tomasich, Joyce M. Bernasek, Tracy Sandler

September 21, 2015

Helen Racanelli’s article, “It’s never been better to be a woman in law,” which appeared on September 9 in Precedent, Toronto’s lifestyle magazine for lawyers, draws almost exclusively on the leadership examples set by Osler women—prominent lawyers who have a long history of sitting at Osler’s top desks. In the fifties, when Justice Bertha Wilson applied to law school at Dalhousie University, she decided to ignore advice to go home and take up crocheting. Within two decades, she had made partner at Osler. In 1982, she was the first woman in Canadian history to be appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada. Jean Fraser, at Osler from 1993–2015, became national managing partner in 1999, an appointment that sealed our reputation for promoting women. 

Today, our chief executive Dale Ponder, is surrounded by successful women, with managing partners in Calgary and Ottawa, as well as chief operating and client officers. Currently, five Practice Group Chairs are held by women, including Deborah Glendinning, Chair of our National Litigation Department, who is at the helm of the most significant class action case in the country. Deborah was also selected for Benchmark Canada’s Top 25 Women in Canadian Litigation 2014, as well as The World’s Leading Business Lawyers 2015. Dale, who is recognized as one of WXN’s Top 100 Powerful Women in Canada, and as one of the Top 25 of Canada’s Women of Influence, points out that having women in senior roles really is part of Osler’s DNA. Business development director, Jodi Kovitz adds, “We are committed to women comprising 30 percent of our teams, and we meet that objective as often as possible.” Beyond the metrics, Helen Racanelli applauds our office culture, which genuinely supports and sponsors women, and she emphasizes how inspiring it is for women on Bay Street to see confident, smart and charismatic women at the top.

As the article points out, gender parity is elusive and retention is a serious, costly issue. Osler actively and frequently takes initiatives to make sure this is a great place for women to work—where both professional and family life receive support from within. For example, our maternity-leave buddy-program matches partners (both male and female) with associates on leave, while the Osler Women’s Network Teamsite is an online resource group providing female lawyers with the platform to discuss such issues as career advancement and work-life balance.

Dale is quick to credit the crucial role that men have played in promoting women at the firm. “Our women have had strong male voices at our firm who have championed their abilities,” she says. “This truth is an important part of our culture and it was also true of my own personal experience.”

While gender parity is not yet a reality at Osler (118 of 288 lawyers in the Toronto office are women), millennial attitudes will help ensure a shift in the speed of gender balance, as the voice of the next generation becomes increasingly heard. “Men of today’s generation grew up with women in leadership roles,” says Mary Abbott, a partner in corporate group. “They think, Of course there will be women at the top.”

Read Helen Racanelli’s article from Precedent Magazine’s Good News From Bay Street: It's never been better to be a woman in law